Copies of the book are available at the library or can be purchased at the Museum Store. If you are unable to attend Ginny’s talk at the library, she will discuss the book on Sun., Aug. 4 at 1:30 p.m. at the Oshkosh Public Museum.
The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did the museum acquire Nancy’s diaries?
Very interesting story… In 1936, a man named Joseph Suenkel (who was a baker in Oshkosh) brought in the three volumes. We don’t know where he got them or why he brought them here. He had no relation to her whatsoever. He didn’t even live where she did. How he came to be in possession of them is a big mystery.
At first, they were dismissed as not being too important. They were just Civil War diaries – although the period is not strictly Civil War. She writes for four years before the war, the four war years; then the four years after.
They were dismissed as talking about the weather only, which she did a lot, and it was kind of a thing that was referred to occasionally in old newspaper articles.
Just recently, it’s been considered a treasure because she is a first-hand witness to, not only life in early Oshkosh, but life in the South just before the Civil War and then life in general during that time.
When you read it, you can tell she’s not giving her opinions about many things. However, in the book, the very first entry is her commentary that the slaves are not being treated right. And at the end of the war, after reconstruction started and the South was in a very bad way… she said, this is the wrath of vengeance that is taken out upon the South because of the way they treated the slaves.
We know she felt that the whole time, but as a woman, she could record what was happening, but she couldn’t launch out on topics that women have the freedom to speak about today.
She truly felt that her place was in the home - this was something that God had ordained. She frowned on the women who were beginning to give lectures in public and who were crusading for various things. She made several references to that as not being appropriate… it was not their place.
When you read the original manuscript, was there anything that was surprising to you?
The most interesting and surprising part of the diary is the trip the family takes to Alabama in 1859.
They live in Alabama until the beginning of the Civil War and that’s a totally different atmosphere from the one in Oshkosh. To me, that was the best part of the story.
They went there because Nancy’s husband, George, and his brothers, were all builders and contractors. They got a contract with the Northeast & Southwest Alabama Railroad and, at that time, railroads were covering short distances. This little railroad was going from Meridian, Mississippi to Chattanooga, Tennessee. To get to Chattanooga, they had to cross two rivers in Alabama. The contract the Derby men got was to build bridges over those rivers, and George was in charge of making bricks for the bridges’ piers out of Alabama clay.
Working in Alabama, a Confederate state with a slave labor economy, meant his workers were slaves. Nancy lived among the slaves, cared for them, fed them, made clothes for them, and lived side-by-side with them in this new environment.
As a person originally from Maine, this was completely foreign to her. Plus, it was unbearably hot at a time when there was no way to cool off except fanning yourself. Disease was rampant, and they all suffered a great deal.
What was your writing process?
As soon as I started writing it, I knew there were things that people today wouldn’t understand – names, places that no longer exist in Oshkosh, etc. I realized immediately that I needed to put annotations in to supply context.
Because I didn’t want the book to look like solid print, I thought we needed some images to go with it. I found some pictures from the Library of Congress of politicians that she talked about, the Civil War; simple things like a mourning bonnet, currants, a mockingbird… things I thought would break up that huge amount of text.
What do you think it would be like to meet Nancy Chandler Derby in 2019?
I have tremendous admiration for her. I know that she would be completely upset by the fact that I have played with her words, and now I’m sharing them with other people. I think that would be just devastating to her, but I hope she’d understand that what she left for us is a fantastic first person record, which we don’t have a lot of, and it helps us understand and empathize with the kind of life that people lived in the middle of the 19th century - the diseases that they fought and the innumerable deaths. It’s hard for us to even imagine.
I would talk to her about people I have come to know through other studies that I did. Often, she would mention someone, and I knew who that was because I studied them when I was giving the Riverside Cemetery Tours.
I think it would be kind of fun. I’d probably take her to Walmart.